June 16, 2008

Wildfires Not Unusual in South: Pocosin Fire’s Size Makes It Notable

By Matt Ehlers, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jun. 16--The size of the wildfire burning in and around the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge may be atypical, but statistics show that its occurrence is anything but.

There were 7,000 wildfires in North Carolina in 2007, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and they burned more than 54,000 acres.

As of Sunday, the wildfire in eastern North Carolina had burned more than 41,000 acres, with costs to fight it soaring past $2.6 million. Also known as the Evans Road wildfire, it is about 40 percent contained, but thick smoke is still causing visibility problems near the blaze, causing the National Weather Service to post an advisory cautioning people with respiratory ailments to stay indoors.

Because of the media attention focused on the giant wildfires of the West each summer, Southern wildfires can be overlooked. We discussed the prevalence of Southern forest fires via e-mail with Toddi A. Steelman, an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State University.

Q: Is the Pocosin Lakes wildfire typical for wildfires in the South?

A: No. It is much larger than a typical fire, and it is occurring on organic soils. This means that the soil actually catches on fire and has the potential to smolder or burn for a long time.

From 1998 to 2007, North Carolina burned, on average, 26,548 acres per year.

Keep in mind that the definition of a "typical" fire is changing. Overall, we are seeing larger fires in both the South and the West.

Q: The South isn't thought of as a wildfire region, but aren't there more wildfires here than in the West?

A: Yes.

The South is very much a wildfire region. North Carolina has already had nearly 3,000 fires around the state this year. The West will usually have much larger acreage fires than the South. The Evans fire in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is an exception.

Q: What percentage of wildfires are caused by humans and what percentage by natural events such as a lightning strike?

A: It really depends on the region of the country. Out West, lightning typically causes more fires. Here in North Carolina, humans are much more likely to be the cause of fires. Debris burning is a main culprit. Lightning causes a very small percentage of fires in North Carolina.

Q: Wildfires are seen primarily as a rural threat, but is that true in North Carolina?

A: As people have moved into what is known as the wildland urban interface -- or the places where forests and people live -- the threat to people has grown. This has been more likely to happen in rural areas because that is where the trees are.

In the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, lots of people moved to smaller towns in search of a higher quality of life. In fact, North Carolina is one of the top five states in the U.S. with the highest rate of housing increases in areas that face the highest wildfire risk.

Down East and in the mountains, we have seen increases in the number of people living in the woodland urban interface, and this means more people, property and infrastructure at risk.

Q: A related question -- what kind of homeowner should worry about wildfires?

A: Any homeowner who lives in an area with trees, shrubs or grasses that can catch fire. Homeowners have an obligation to learn about the fire ecology in their area.

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